What led you to pursue self-publishing as opposed to going the traditional publishing route?
2015-08-14 Virgin-CoverFrog-300-450After I completed my thriller VIRGIN, I queried and quickly found an agent. My agent found an interested publisher almost immediately. Unfortunately, in the end the editor from that house left to start a literary agency before a deal was finalized. Despite several rounds of submissions, VIRGIN was never picked up by another publisher. To say that this was a huge disappointment is an understatement. I finally withdrew my manuscript from consideration and parted ways with my agent. It was such a disappointing experience that I didn’t write another book for two years!

In June of 2010, after months of querying, I had two offers of agent representation in-hand for my romantic comedy, THE FROG PRINCE. One was from my “dream agent” who represented several New York Times bestsellers. Although the second offer was from an agent from a newer, smaller agency, I found her enthusiasm attractive. In the end, and for various reasons which aren’t worth going into here, I chose to pass on both offers. Which, of course, left me right back where I was before I’d ever queried anyone: unpublished and depressed as hell about it.

My friend and thriller author, Boyd Morrison, was the first author to leverage his indie-publishing success into a four-book, traditional, Big Five publishing deal. I’m also friends with his wife Randi. She’d read FROG PRINCE and really liked it, sure that it would be my “breakout novel.” After my agent search hit a dead-end, Boyd called me and suggested that I upload THE FROG PRINCE to Amazon for the Kindle. Honestly, I didn’t do it right away, because it seemed like the learning curve was incredibly steep (and it was). When I did finally take the plunge, I mostly did it so he’d stop harassing me about it. Four months later it became an Amazon best-seller. I keep promising to buy him a drink someday to thank him, but I don’t really mean it.

Were you surprised when your first novel became a bestseller?
I don’t think any writer “plans” to become a bestseller–so yes, I was absolutely stunned. (Still am, most days.) When I self-published The Frog Prince (a Romantic Comedy) in July of 2010, people in the publishing industry–fellow-authors, agents, editors–told me I was crazy, and that I would be pounding a nail into the coffin of my writing career. I sold exactly 1 copy in July of 2010; honestly, I couldn’t be certain that one of my parents didn’t buy it. In September, I sold 18 copies. In October, it was nearly 100 copies. In November, it was several hundred, and the number kept growing. The Frog Prince peaked at #1 in the Kindle Store for Humor in May of 2012. Tens of thousands of copies have been sold to date, but it all started with those dozen or so readers who took a chance on an unknown book back in July of 2010.

Can an author still succeed at self-publication, or is going the way of 'the Big Five' their only hope?
When I self-published in July 2010, there were very few self-published authors compared to now. Because of that, it was probably somewhat easier to “get noticed.” On the other hand, all that extra scrutiny could have very quickly worked against me. That said, I believe that successful self-publishing—the kind that allows you to quit your Day Job—is absolutely a viable option for independent writers, even without—especially without—the backing of a Big Five publisher. The trick? As a self-published author, it’s important to understand that you are the proud new owner of a BUSINESS–whether you know it (or like it) or not. You are now the widget-maker, the marketing director, the PR rep, the agent, the graphic designer, the accountant, the customer relations department—even the intellectual property attorney!

Given what you now know and have learned, what advice or words of wisdom would you like to impart to a writer struggling to choose between going self-published or traditional?
Don’t choose—pursue both. Keep all your irons in the fire. If you’re querying for traditional publication, think about e-pubbing a novel or short story to gauge reader interest. If you’re antsy about how traditional publishing will view your e-pubbing then use a pen name. If the book is a success, you may be able to use it to leverage a better traditional publishing deal. And if it bombs? Well, no one’s the wiser (except you, but at least you can lick your wounds in private).

In my opinion, it’s foolish to only pursue traditional publishing. You will wait, wait, wait, and wait some more to find an agent. Then you’ll wait, wait, wait, and wait some more to find a publisher. Then you’ll wait, wait, wait, and wait some more for your book to come out. This whole process can take anywhere from two years (which would be lightning fast in the legacy publishing world) to, well, never. Why wait? You could be published in 48 hours on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, et cetera, and launch a writing career now.

However—and this is important—if you do go indie, be sure you understand what you’re getting yourself into. I can’t stress this enough: all that stuff a publisher normally does for you—designing a book cover, marketing, formatting a manuscript for e-publication across several platforms—is now your job. Graphic designing not a part of your skill set? Too bad. Those who can’t do either hire or learn on the fly. So if you e-pub, do it right. No shoddy book covers, no manuscript riddled with typos, or bad grammar.

If you had one bit of advice you'd offer a writer who asked you how to make more money self-publishing e-books, what would it be?'
To do whatever you can to be the Wizard of Oz. What do I mean by that?

When Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow go to see the Wizard of Oz, they want to believe that he is real. In the same way, readers want to find your work and love it. The majority of them don’t care about the turmoil in the industry—self-published versus traditionally published, pricing wars, sock puppetry, etc. By and large, they’re just looking for a few hours of escape in a good book. So your job as a writer, and as a business owner, is to make sure that you never have to say “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” In other words, your self-published novel should be indistinguishable from a novel published and packaged by a Big Five publisher.

In practical terms, this means four things:

1. Create an eye-catching, unique, instantly descriptive cover. You have approximately three seconds to capture the interest of the reader, and get them to “click-through” before they move on, so make sure your book “pops,” and is professional-looking at-a-glance. Ideally, you should get compliments from people within the industry on the “professional-looking” cover you’ve created.

2. Edit your novel. And then edit it some more. And then edit it again. This is most likely going to require that you hire somebody. Yes. Does this cost money? Yes, but again—your aim is to never allow the reader to wonder, “Is this is self-published novel?” Self-published novels are notorious for being riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, continuity errors, and the like. And that’s just the copyediting problems! Ideally, you’ll be able to find someone to do hard editing on your novel, which means someone who can tell you where the story drags, or where the plot falls apart, or who will point out characters that were not fully developed, or who serve no purpose.

3. Write a good novel. Notice that I did not say that you need to write a great novel. That’s because for better or for worse, even a mediocre book will sell if readers perceive that your book is professionally edited and packaged. Such is the nature of consumer purchasing psychology.

4. Price your work competitively using “Goldilocks Pricing.” Ideally, you’ll find the “sweet spot” of pricing for your genre—one that’s neither too high nor too low. And notice my use of the word “work” here. You worked hard on your novel, and you must believe that it has value, because if you believe it does, then readers are more likely to believe it. In my opinion, a 99 cent novel (except during short promotional periods) is a flashing sign that tells the reader that they may end up getting what they pay for.

Can you make a living even if you're not a bestselling self-published author? Is there hope that a self-published author can ever quit their 'day job?'

If your goal is to make a living as a self-published author, you must do one of two things:

1. Price your first-time novel high enough to generate a higher revenue—ideally one that you can live off of even with moderate sales.
2. Put out enough content (e.g. books) so that a lower price will be offset by the volume of product that is available for purchase.

I have some particularly strong opinions about pricing low, especially for first-time authors. As a rule, I almost never advise first-time authors, or authors with just a few titles, to price under $2.99. The reasons for this are many, but here are the two big ones:

First: because of the 35–70% royalty split on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the other platforms, you simply will not sell enough novels at a lower price point to make up for the loss of revenue. For those not familiar with this split, it is as follows:

  • $2.99 and up=author receives 70% royalty
  • $2.98 and below=author receives 35% royalty

Here’s some simple math. Let’s say you would like to replace your Day Job income of $40,000 per year ($3,333/month). At various price points, you would need to sell the following number of books each month:

Table 1

The problem with the Amazon Top 100 is, well, there are only 100 spots. The odds of your book being in the Amazon Top 100 are as follows: Slim. To. None. This isn’t a commentary on an author’s book’s quality (which, in all likelihood, I haven’t even read). It’s simple probability and basic arithmetic.

Second: It devalues work across the board—for all authors—and creates the expectation among consumers that anything above $.99 is outrageously high. In fact, I have argued that the glut of free promos through Amazon’s KDP Select program is having a similar affect.

Doesn't Amazon control the price of self-published novels?
Pricing for self-published authors on Amazon doesn’t work the same way as it does for traditionally published authors. Self-published authors set the price for their books on Amazon. The only time Amazon would change the price without your consent or knowledge is if the “Amazon pricing robot” found the same title on another platform at a lower price.
Why do many readers balk at paying a higher price for e-books than they would for a paperback or hardcover copy (whether traditionally or self-published)?

Unlike self-published authors, Big Five publishers can only absorb so much revenue loss as a result of retailers discounting their e-books.Regardless of that fact, consumers continue to insist on drastically lower prices for e-books, a disconnect that is the result of what I call the “Paper Paradox.” The Paper Paradox is a publishing-specific phenomenon that is a combination of two consumer psychology concepts:

1. “Mental accounting cost,” the official definition of which is boring enough to put a grown man into a coma, but can be easily paraphrased thusly: “Thinking is real hard-like, and we (consumers) don’t like to do it.”

2. “Perceived value,” a likewise super-boring definition that can be boiled down this way: “Books in bookstores are ‘real.’ E-books, much like unicorns, are ‘magic.'”

So what is it? In a nutshell, the Paper Paradox is the oft-repeated complaint of consumers that usually begins with “Now, I’m no expert, but…” and then goes on to sound something like this: “…you can’t tell me that an e-book—which isn’t printed on paper, and doesn’t use ink or binding—costs a publisher as much as a paper book.”

Of course, anyone in publishing knows that the cost of  publishing a book in any format involves much more than paying for paper. But consumers unconsciously process this entire controversy of pricing of e-books through the lens of the two consumer psychology concepts above, leaving you with this:

1. Paper is something I understand. I buy paper too. Paper is something I can hold.

2. E-books aren’t made of paper. I can’t “hold” an e-book. Therefore an e-book should be cheaper.

End of story. So how much change is possible? Answer: Not enough to placate consumers, who will (at least for this generation) continue to insist that that traditionally published novels be as close to the price of self-published novels as possible. The problem, of course, is that it isn’t possible, not with the current business model of publishing’s Big Five.

Are you for or against Amazon 'giveaways' (i.e. giving away your book for free as part of a promotion)?
While I am not in favor of low-pricing or “free” self-published e-books (which I go into more detail on in my answer to a different question), the exceptions to that philosophy include the launch of a new book, especially if an author is new and trying to find a readership, or, if they have an established fan base, but they want to create “insta-word-of-mouth.”

These promos should always be infrequent, and of short duration; otherwise, you run the risk of upsetting readers who bought the book at a higher price. Please see my Expert Publishing Blog on Digital Book World on this topic: “Hang Up Your Pimp Costume, Kids: Why Free Book Promos on Amazon Don’t Work Like They Used To (No Matter How You Spin the Numbers).”

How much control do you have over your book's pricing? Are the company's computers changing your prices as the algorithms see things? Or are you in control?
Pricing for self-published authors on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, iBookstore, Smashwords, et cetera doesn’t work the same way as it does for traditionally published authors. Self-published authors set the price for their books on these publishing platforms, almost without exception. The only time one of these companies would change the price without your consent or knowledge is if their “pricing robot”—a proprietary program used by the big platforms to troll the internet and scan their competitors’ sites for identical products—were to find your title on another platform at a lower price.

What do self-published authors need to know to compete in the marketplace with traditional publishers?
I don’t think the pricing strategies of traditional publishers affects self-published authors at all. Again, the strategies for traditional publishers and self-published authors have always been very different. This is because the “companies behind the book” are very different. On the one hand, you have a large corporation—often an international conglomerate, such as Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster. On the other hand, you have a single person with next to no overhead costs—i.e. YOU. Because of this, there has always been a big difference in price for self-published novels and pricing for Big Six e-books. Self-published authors generally cannot, nor should they attempt to, price at a traditionally published level. My guess is that pricing for self-published books will continue to be between 99 cents and $5.99, and pricing for traditionally published books will continue to be higher than $5.99.

You very rarely sell your books for anything less than $2.99 (and more frequently $3.99, $4.99 and even $5.99). There are many self-published success stories out there that are a result of the 99¢ e-book. Why do you believe in charging more?

I’ve written and blogged extensively on the topic of strategic pricing. I’ve observed and measured how pricing affects everything from the percentage of books returned (and yes—readers can do that) and the number of stars given in reader reviews, to creating “imputed value” for your first novel by treating it like a cup of Starbucks coffee or an online date. And what I’ve discovered is that pricing is perceived to be a much more critical factor in e-book purchasing behavior among consumers than it actually is. What I mean by that is that there is an assumption that if you price a novel low (at 99 cents, for example), you will instantly attract readers to your work and sell hundreds or thousands of copies. Or, conversely, that a price point of anything above $2.99 will repel readers.

The problem with this approach is that it misses the much more critical steps that come before pricing. When a self-published author tells me that they feel their pricing strategy has failed to generate sales, a quick glance at their product page often tells me that the reader probably never considered “the price factor” in the first place. Why? Because of the amateurish book cover, the sloppy product description, and the fact that the first five reviews of the book complain about typos—all of which scream to the reader that there is no Wizard, just a sad, balding little man behind a curtain haphazardly yanking levers.

As part of a business plan, each author needs to develop strategies—including pricing—that works for their genre, their goals and expectations, and for whatever self-publication “stage” that they’re in. Not all authors want to quit their day jobs and make a million dollars; some just want the satisfaction of knowing that their work is widely read. And first-time authors will want to price differently from those with an established fan base and twenty novels, for example. Romance authors may price very differently from someone who has penned a memoir. The important thing to understand is that with the industry changing so quickly, there will never be the “perfect price.” Every aspect of publishing, including pricing, is a moving target at best.

As far as using pricing alone to get a title on a Top 100 list on Amazon, I’ve seen no convincing proof that this works overall. That’s because authors make assumptions about consumer behavior that aren’t true. Readers do not buy a book simply because it’s 99 cents. In fact, I would submit again that this is most often a secondary or even tertiary factor.

Think for a moment about how you would recommend a product to a friend: “Hey, I got this widget for $2.99!” Now, $2.99 may be an exceptionally good price for a widget. But unless the widget in question is a well-known brand with mass appeal—or unless you’ve tested the widget out for yourself—you probably wouldn’t recommend it to your friend anyway.

The same goes for a book. Sure, if it’s Stephen King’s latest, no explanation to your friend about quality is necessary; “Stephen King” is a brand, which is why his name is always much bigger than the title of the book on the cover. However, if you’re gushing to your friend about Joe Unknown’s latest, you’d have to include not just the price point, but the quality: “You wouldn’t believe this amazing book I just finished that I got for $2.99!” If you were an economist, you might say this: “Hey, check out this [product perceived to have high imputed value] that I got for [a price that is exceptionally low considering the imputed value of the product, the cost of production of the product, and the average price at which this product is typically offered for sale on the open market]!”

And again, if you look at my example for pricing, you’ll see that the number of books that you would have to sell at a lower price is unlikely to be anything that Average Author is going to be able to accomplish. That means that if you lower the price—even significantly—you’re unlikely to generate a corresponding increase in sales that will catapult you to the top of any of the Top 100 lists on Amazon. In my experience, when a consumer perceives that your product (e.g. book) has value, they’re willing to pay more for that value. How do I know this? My first novel The Frog Prince, became an Amazon bestseller at $5.99.

While this may seem like a cynical or utilitarian approach to some people, authors should understand that it is your business strategy that sells books, not just your writing skills. And frankly, the sooner you understand that, the more likely you are to make money doing this. From a business strategy perspective, then, designing an eye-catching, irresistible book cover, writing an excellent product description, and penning a quality novel that generates positive reviews—all of those will go a long way towards generating word-of-mouth, much more so than anything you could ever achieve by simply adjusting the price of your book. In fact, because of the concept of “imputed value,” you may find that raising the price of your novel will increase your sales.

Do you recommend writing shorter novels, or even short stories?
Absolutely! Content is key. The more titles you put out, the more money you’ll make—simple as that. Since short stories and eSingles can be written more quickly than a novel, you can actually justify pricing lower because (hypothetically, of course) the increase in quantity of the product available will offset the loss of revenue associated with lower pricing.

Again, simple math and economic concepts such as “cost of production.” In other words: How long does it take you to produce one “widget” (e-single or novel). Based on the time it takes to produce, how many can you produce per year? Once you determine those two things, you can see for yourself the significant difference in potential annual revenue using the same price for each format, and the hypothetical sales figure of 100/month for each book/e-single. Chart assumes that reader loves one of your titles and buys them all (magical thinking, yes).

Is there anything you've written in any of your books that you really want to rewrite?
Dear diary

Have you ever run across a notebook or computer file of essays/love letters/journal entries written by your younger self? If so, you probably cringed a bit over how little the writer’s “voice” reflected the person you are today. As with any craft, an author’s writing changes over time. Using Stephen King as an example is sort of a cheat since he was such a gifted storyteller from a very young age, but even the least discerning reader would be able to detect a difference in King’s voice in Carrie, published in 1974, and Under the Dome, published twenty-five years later in 2009. That’s because, like any other occupation, age, experience, and life change you, and that different “you” has a slightly different voice. Unlike any other occupation, though, a writer’s books are a literary dig, rich with fossils chronicling the evolution of the author’s voice.

frog prince dissectedAs an author, you don’t have to wait twenty-five years to read your “old stuff” and cringe a little. A year or two usually does it for me. I wrote the first draft of The Frog Prince between April and November of 2009. I self-published it in July of 2010, and it became a bestseller about four or five months later. I wrote the companion novel, Gilding the Lily-pad, in 2013—four years after finishing that first draft. Although Gilding was written from the point-of-view of Roman Lorraine von Habsburg, the overall story was essentially the same as The Frog Prince. In order to avoid continuity errors, I had to not only re-read Frog, but dissect it like a biology student. Once I cut into it and revealed the guts, The Frog Prince read (to me) like a hot mess. There were three books, four years, and hundreds of thousands of words between The Frog Prince and Gilding the Lily-pad. My writing voice was simply different.

Gilding the Lily-pad Elle Lothlorien

For Gilding, this turned out to be a good thing. Having never “written a man” from the first person, I was afraid that Roman and Leigh would “sound” interchangeable. If I’d written Roman this way—a worldly, privileged man who straddles two worlds, but doesn’t quite fit into either—it would have been a disaster. But the four years between Frog and Gilding had irrevocably changed me; my writing style had matured. I was more focused and disciplined, and less—how can I say this? Giddy? Frivolous? I don’t mean to say that my style was “silly” before (or that Leigh Fromm is a silly person), just that my writing style had demonstrably changed.

And some people may be shocked to read this, I actually have changed my books after they’ve been published—too many times to count, in fact. Most of the changes involve correcting minor spelling or grammatical errors after-the-fact. A more extreme example involves the changes I made to The Frog Prince in 2013. When I sat down to write Gilding in 2013, I realized that some of the references in The Frog Prince were outdated. For instance, in The Frog Prince, Roman and Leigh have more than one conversation about Prince William. Here’s one:

[Roman] “Well, that would become your life.  Just look at Prince William.  The poor guy can’t even kiss a girl without it being on the front page of every newspaper in the morning.  Makes me wonder if he ever lost his virginity.”

“Wow, forget the frog prince,” I say, sarcasm dripping from my voice.  “You’re a regular Prince Charming.”

When I wrote this exchange, William was still a bachelor. By the time sat down to write Gilding in 2013, the Duke of Cambridge was a happily married man and brand-new father. Since I knew I was going to retain all the dialogue between Roman and Leigh, I had two choices: 1) Keep the original dialogue and look like a dumbass who had somehow missed every news story and grocery check-out celebrity magazine in the last four years; 2) Update the dialogue in Frog. I chose option 2. Remember that the following is written from Roman’s POV:

[Roman] “That would become your life. Just look at Prince William. The poor guy couldn’t even kiss a girl without it being on the front page of every newspaper in the morning. Makes me wonder how he ever lost his virginity. I mean, he’s married now but still…”

“Wow, forget the frog prince,” she says, laying the sarcasm on thick. “You’re a regular Prince Charming.”

While changing paper books is a little more complicated, revising an e-books—even after you’ve published it—takes about as much time to do as ordering a tube of lip gloss on Amazon.